A lot has changed in both the teams since the previous edition of the Ashes was played two years back. A few retirements, a few new faces in the team and the most significant change has turned out to be the new young captains of both England and Australia – Joe Root and Steven Smith. These two played the Ashes 2015 as just players with the only responsibility on their shoulders was to score runs and there was no doubt at the end of the series that both the batsmen had done an outstanding job.
However, these two had not only led from the front with the bat but also had begun grooming to become their respective team’s next Test captains. During the Ashes in England 2015, Root and Smith were the deputy to Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke respectively and that series taught was a great experience to both the young men. Even though the series went in the favour of England, Smith had a chance to gather a bundle of learning that would come handy when Clarke would announce retirement to name Smith as his successor at the end of the heart-breaking series.
From best batters to new captains
Before donning the captain’s armband, Smith and Root had well established themselves as their team’s best batsman. In Ashes 2015, while Root top-scored for England and stood third overall on the runs chart with 460 runs in five Tests at ab average of 57.50, Smith was right on the top with 508 runs at 56.55. Root and Smith were the only batsmen that series who managed to register two hundreds and Root edged Smith in averages because he scored a fifty more than Smith.
Every team goes by the standard rule of keeping their three fine batsmen in the top three position and the No. 3 slot is given to the one who is the best in business. The position demands the player to have the technique to deal with the new ball, conquer the spin, temperament to survive the uncertainties in those overs and talent to drive the course of the day’s play in his own way. Smith and Root possess every single quality named here and while the former willingly bats at No. 3, Root has been against the idea, despite the fact if Root not batting at No. 3 has been not disrupting the team balance.
Smith’s flexibility vs Root’s reluctance
Smith has always been flexible with his batting positions and according to the situation, he takes the call of coming in at either No. 3 or 4.
On the other hand, Root has been tenacious and non-adjustable about it. Until he played under the captaincy of Cook, the selectors and coach managed to line him at No. 3; almost throughout the 2016 season, Root batted at No. 3 and even registered his highest Test score of 254, which came against Pakistan in Manchester.
Ever since Root was handed the full-time captaincy after Cook’s resignation in the beginning of 2017, England have played seven Tests and on all occasions, Root chose not to bat at No. 3. And good as his record is at No.3, where he averages 45 in 16 Tests, it is better again at No.4, where he averages 54 in 20, and No.5, 73 in 17.
This miserable situation in the English camp seems intangible; there are two counter questions here. The first one is that, is an individual’s choice, be it the captain himself, more important than the team’s interest? The other is that when your captain is not only comfortable batting at No. 4 but also scoring runs, then why make alterations at all?
Meanwhile, England have tried the likes of Tom Westley, Gary Ballance and Keaton Jennings at No. 3 and none of these has convinced to be a suitable option for the crucial position in the batting order. There is no harm in experimentation but the Ashes is just not the platform where England selectors would like to demonstrate with a new player. In the two tour games against Cricket Australia XI and Western Australia XI, Root batted at No. 4 and James Vince, who is just seven Tests old in the team, was made to bat at No. 3.
There is an explanation for Root’s reluctance to bat at No. 3. He was first given that position during the Ashes 2013-14 where he was dropped in the final Test for his poor innings in the first four. Following that Root has been dead against batting at No. 3. But, he is the leader in the squad now and that role is given with certain responsibilities which he cannot overlook for his own comforts and more importantly, against the team’s well being.
When English Coach Trevor Bayliss will insist Root to bat at No. 3 in the Ashes because they want their best batsman to bat there, Root must recollect of something he said a few days back. “One of the most important things (is that) within that dressing room… it is going to be a squad effort, we’re going to have to show a lot of character as a group and there can’t be any selfish mentality out in the middle.
‘It’s going to have to be about doing your job within the team, and not worrying about individual performances, making sure that collectively if someone’s had a bad day someone else steps up – and similarly, when it’s your turn, you take it on yourself to make it your day,” the England captain said.
While Root will be under pressure because of this chaos, that will only allow Smith to play more freely. The Australian captain already has excellent numbers ever since he was named the captain. He so far has 20 Test hundreds, out of which 12 came after he was made the skipper. In 26 Tests as the skipper, Smith has scored 2,830 runs at 69.02. He will not only aim to be the best captain but also ensure he continues to remain the best batsman too in the current era.
Aggression will give edge
Even before Root took off with his captaincy, there were many players and former ones like Stuart Broad and Shane Warne who were confident that Root being an aggressive batsman will bring that aggression in his captaincy too and that will, in turn, help the team shape up better. And that exactly has happened.
Talking about their captaincy on the field, solely, since Root has got results in all the seven Tests he has led England in so far, he is more of an aggressive captain when compared to Smith, who goes more of the defensive ways like his predecessor Clarke. When Smith was handed the full-time captaincy in 2015, he was given the role on one condition that he would be less defensive captaining the Australian eleven boys. However, that promise has seemed to have forgotten by the skipper.
During the home series against Pakistan in 2016, Australia set Pakistan a world record 490 to win. But that was followed by “ridiculous” defensive field set up by Smith which he was severely criticised for by former Test captains like Michael Vaughan, Mark Taylor and Michael Clarke. Smith was accused of temporarily losing his nerve as he set a defensive field with only one slip and the visitors came with 39 runs of pulling off a miraculous Test win. Had Pakistan won the Test, Smith’s defensive captaincy could have created catastrophic repercussions for him.
Neither Australia nor England will go into the Ashes with a stable and the best-possible side. So, whichever team capitalises on their respective strengths and takes advantage of the other’s weaknesses will have fair better. And in doing so, the captains will have a huge role to play. Keeping it simple, among Root and Smith, whoever will keep the interest of the team in mind and act fearless, will have the Ashes at the end.